1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 65:



Chapter 23


Brussels, the Spanish Netherlands



            Don Fernando was, of course, only twenty-three years old. That accounted for many of the things that he had already achieved. He did not yet know that they were impossible. His aunt Isabella and her advisers, on the other hand, did—and she was still the ruler of the Spanish Netherlands.


            Isabella Clara Eugenia was certainly old enough to know better. According to the incredible encyclopedias to be found in Grantville, she should have been dead by now. More than three months ago, in fact, on the first day of December, 1633.


            Given how she felt this morning, that did not surprise her in the least. However, instead, she was quite alive and sitting in a wheeled chair at the conference table in her palace in Brussels, in the presence of her very closest and most trusted advisers and confidants. Wearing, as she had since she’d joined the order in 1625 a few years after her husband’s death, the vestments of a nun of the Sisters of St. Clare rather than the flashy court apparel and regalia of her younger years.


            The decision that they had just placed on the table was not, perhaps, impossible. It was just… dangerous. Dreadfully dangerous.


            “It is my will,” she said.


            Hers was an imperious voice, still, for all that it was beginning to quaver with age. Infanta of Spain by birth; daughter of Philip II, Archduchess of Austria by marriage, joint sovereign of the Netherlands with her husband Archduke Albrecht VII of Austria, and sole sovereign since his death twelve years earlier.


            “It is signed. Witnessed. Sealed. From the first, it was my father’s intent that the Netherlands should be an appanage for us, for Albert and me. The lawyers have revisited all the provisions of my marriage contract in detail. For us, and for our children, to revert to Spain only if we did not have children.”


            A shadow of regret for three tiny, frail, babies, dead so long ago, flitted across her face. “Not that they should return to being directly ruled from Madrid after my death. I bore children, so the Netherlands became ours, no matter that they died soon after their birth. Mine, since my husband Albrecht’s death. Not, of course, that it will prevent other lawyers, paid by other masters, from interpreting the clauses in other ways. So be it.


            “It is my will,” she repeated. “My nephew Fernando has earned my trust. I have bequeathed my holdings to him. Let the king of Spain react after he finds that the deed has been done. It will not be long.”


            Her confessor Bartolomé de los Rios y Alarcon shook his head. “Please, Your Grace! You are not dead until you are dead—and you are only sixty-seven years old.”


            The archduchess gave the Augustinian priest a rather cool look. Arch, it might be called.




            De los Rios seemed discomfited, and looked away. Across from him at the table, Pieter Paul Rubens chuckled. “He’s a priest, Your Grace—and Spanish, to boot. You can hardly expect him to say it out loud.”


            He shifted his chair forward and planted his forearms on the table. “But since I am merely an artist—and Flemish, to make it worse—I will undertake the crude business. You thought you were on your deathbed last summer, remember? And yet here you are, quite definitely alive. The only reason you know you were ‘supposed’ to have died at the end of last year is because you read it in a copy of a Grantville book.”


            She nodded. “And… so?”


            A bit sternly, he said: “So read some of the other books. In the world that book was written, the average age at death of an American woman was almost eighty. And most of them were active and alert—reasonably enough—until the end. So stop predicting your imminent demise. Who knows?”


            “I say it again—and so? In that same world, my three children would not have died in infancy. But they did, nonetheless.”


            She leaned back in her wheeled chair, sighing. “Let us not quarrel. Especially since it hardly matters anyway. Whether I live or die”—she pointed to the papers on the table—“if this transpires, it will be my great-nephew and not I who will have to defend it in a test of arms. Not even when I was twenty could I have led an army into the field as its commander, after all.”


            De los Rios winced, as did two of the other advisers at the table. Those were Henri de Vicq, who was Flemish, and the Walloon Gerard Courselle. Both of them were men well past middle-age. De Vicq was sixty years old and Courselle, sixty-five.


            “Perhaps it will not come to that,” the priest said.


            “Perhaps not,” said Isabella. “But who at this table can make such a promise—or claims to be able to foresee the future? Keep in mind that while King Philip IV may be reluctant to wage war against his younger brother, he has counselors also. The count-duke of Olivares is not likely to hesitate, and those around him, still less. Spain has dominated the field of battle for so long, I’m afraid, that a military solution comes immediately to mind, whenever it is challenged.”


            Silence fell on the room, for a moment. Then Rubens shrugged and said: “It’s still not so easy as all that, Isabella. Just to begin with, how would they send troops from Spain or the Italian possessions? The Spanish Road is no longer open—and won’t be, so long as Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar squats atop part of it while the Swedes squat upon much of the rest. Each for their own reasons, neither is about to allow passage to Spanish troops—and both are strong enough that any Spanish army that fought its way through them would be too weak to do anything once they reached the Netherlands. If they could fight through at all, which they might against Bernhard but I doubt very much could do against the Swedes.”


            He leaned forward still further, his expression intent. “That means transport by sea, and that requires a fleet—and it remains to be seen exactly where Admiral Oquendo will end up, when the time comes. He is deeply bitter over the way the Spanish navy provided Richelieu with his cannon fodder at the Battle of Dunkirk—with the consent of Philip IV and the count-duke of Olivares.”


            If the time comes,” the archduchess said. She smiled a bit wanly. “Let us not overlook the minor detail that my great-nephew has not agreed to any of this. And without Don Fernando—leading, not simply acquiescing—it will all mean nothing.”


            Rubens looked at her from lowered eyes. “He is much inclined that way, though. Of that, I am certain.”


            The old woman shrugged. “Yes, so am I. And—again—so what? You know him, Pieter, by now probably better than anyone of us here at this table. He is a prince of Spain, for good or ill, not a Flemish burgomaster. And he’s very young, too, which makes it all the harder.”


            Rubens nodded. “Yes, I know. He will wait, until the test of arms in the spring. But I can tell you this, Isabella. He may be waiting like a very young fox, but fox he surely is. I know enough of military matters to know that his troop dispositions are not those of an impetuous commander eager to sally forth onto the field again, as soon as the season permits. There will be no repetition of Haarlem, come the spring. He will make Fabius Maximus look like a daredevil.”


            That brought a little round of laughter. Rather relieved laughter.